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Jesus was good at this sort of thing. A crowd would gather, and he would start in. There was once a farmer who started scattering seeds. Some fell on the road, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and some on good ground. The seeds that fell on good ground did amazingly well. The seeds that fell elsewhere did not. End of story. Then, Amen. Nothing else. You know. The way the preacher walks to the back of the church after the sermon and waits for people to come by with their comments - "Enjoyed, it, pastor." My bet is that if you and I had been there that day in that crowd of people, we would have been scratching our heads and saying something like, "Say what?"
Obviously, this one is not about agriculture or efficient gardening practices. Jesus is telling people a story in order to talk about something else. This one really is MORE than a parable, which comes from a Greek word meaning to "set side by side" or "compare", but a mashal, which is the Hebrew word for something called enigmatic speech. In other words, a story whose meaning is not immediately apparent, something like a riddle, intended to tease the mind into insight.(2)
As you Bible scholars all know, Matthew's gospel was compiled and distributed probably some fifty years after Christ's earthly ministry (around 85 AD). The early church had expanded beyond Jerusalem through the missionary efforts of Paul and others but was still rather minuscule in terms of numbers and influence. There was opposition and even some persecution at the hands of political and religious establishments. It was a time when discouragement could have easily overcome that small band of believers. These were the folks for whom Matthew was writing, and this section of his gospel was organized just for them. In chapter eleven, Jesus confronts political opposition as Herod arrests and murders John the Baptist. In chapter twelve, he faces religious opposition as the Scribes and Pharisees challenge him and even suggest he is in league with the devil himself. Now we come to chapter thirteen and a series of parables. The order of arrangement is no accident - coming on the heels of these accounts of continuous opposition, the stories were meant to address that concern.
This first one, the Parable of the Sower, is the most familiar,(although considering the emphasis of the story, it should probably be called the Parable of the Soils). It uses imagery that is familiar (even if less to us in urban America than in agricultural Palestine). It offers an automatic four-point outline. And finally, for those who fear offering an incorrect interpretation, there is (supposedly) Jesus' own explanation of the meaning of the four types of soil (but most scholars insist that the explanation is an addendum provided by a later editor). No matter. It WILL preach.
Start with the imagery. As Jesus sat in that boat, he may well have seen a farmer off in the distance going about his work, scattering seed by hand. The field(3) would have been one of many long narrow strips with the ground between serving as a right-of-way, a three-foot wide common path, beaten as hard as a pavement by the feet of countless passers-by. If seed fell there, and some was bound to, there was no more chance of its penetrating into the earth than if it had fallen on concrete.
Then there was stony ground. Not ground filled with stones, but rather what was common in that part of the world, a thin skin of earth on top of an underlying shelf of limestone rock. The earth might be only a very few inches deep before the rock was reached. Seed could certainly germinate, because the ground would grow warm quickly with the heat of the sun. But there was no depth of earth and when a plant sent down its roots in search of nourishment and moisture, it would meet only the rock. It would swiftly starve, and shrivel and die.
Thorny ground? Deceptive. When the sower was sowing, the ground would look clean enough. It is easy to make a garden look clean by simply turning it over, but in the ground still lay the fibrous roots of the couch grass and the bishop weed and all the perennial pests, ready to spring to life again. Every gardener knows that the weeds grow with a speed and strength that few good seeds can equal. The result was that the good seed and the dormant weeds grew together, but the weeds were so strong that they throttled the life out of the seed.
Finally, the good ground. Deep and clean and soft. The seed could gain an entry, find nourishment, and grow unchecked. In the good ground it brought forth an abundant harvest.
Suddenly the preacher thunders, "And what type of soil are you?" (Isn't that the way it is supposed to go?) First, there are those whose minds are shut, those into whom the seed of an idea has no more chance of taking root than the seed that falls onto a path beaten hard by many feet. Is that you? Then there is the one whose mind is like the shallow ground, someone who follows the fads, responds to the emotion of the moment, who takes something up quickly and just as quickly drops it. Is that you? Or there is that busy, busy, busy individual who has so many irons in the fire, so many interests in life, that often the most important things, get crowded out. Is that you? Finally, the good ground, the fertile mind - like good soil, it is open, deep, uncluttered. A word from the Lord will take root there and bear an abundant harvest. Is that you?
Well, to be painfully honest, answering for myself, I am ALL of them. There are times when someone speaks to me that they may as well be talking to a wall. For whatever reason, I do not hear what they are saying. The seed is falling on the path. There are times when an idea comes to which I latch right on with enthusiasm but there is no follow-through. It dies away. Stony ground. My life is busy, as is yours. Everyone knows we have far less leisure time than we used to. Good ideas come, and they begin to take root, but with so many competing claims on me, they fade and eventually wither. Thorny ground. Finally, yes, there are times when something comes along that takes root - it grows and blossoms and produces abundantly. I wish that such were always the case, but... Does that sound like anyone you know?
Frankly, we could listen to a thousand sermons on these soil types and still be the same mixtures as we are - part and parcel of being human. That is one of the things that convinces me that Jesus had something else in mind when he told this story.
Another is the placement of the parable in the gospel narrative. This is right after accounts of opposition, and the first in a series of vignettes that describe the sure and certain victory of the Kingdom of God.
One more thing convinces me: Jesus was a good storyteller, and good storytellers know that you cannot make a multitude of points in a story and have any hope of your listeners remembering them. Jesus had a point to make here, not a whole list of them.
So, what is his point? For Matthew's audience of good church folk who, for various and sundry reasons, might be a bit discouraged, it comes right at the end. Fertility Facts of the Kingdom. The harvest. The AMAZING harvest. Thirty-fold. Sixty-fold. A hundred-fold. A harvest of four- to ten-fold was considered normal, with a harvest of fifteen times what was sown being exceptionally good.(4) Who was responsible for such a thing? The Sower? Of course not. It could be none other than God. Always has been. Always will be. Even when we figure it is all up to us. Fertility Facts of the Kingdom.
Several years ago I quoted something from Janet Mathistad, a Lutheran pastor in Minot, ND, and it is worth quoting again. She wrote concerning this parable,
One aspect of this text that has interested me is that even in the good soil, there was such a difference of yields. I got an insight into one answer back in 1993, when I had just married my husband, who is a farmer. That was the summer that the Mississippi River flooded, and our area of North Dakota received 13 inches of rain in June (our total average annual moisture is only 17 inches). A phenomenon happened in Todd's durum fields that he referred to as "stooling out." Whereas normally, each seed sends up one stalk and produces one head of wheat, when the weather is cooler and wetter, the grain will send up a second and even a third stalk. The yield is therefore abundantly greater...Pastor Janet continued.
I see it as an example of something that humans have no control over. If the wheat stools out, it is not because the farmer was especially clever or because the soil was so good, but because the weather conditions were right. It seems that in farming or in ministry, we can sow, but we cannot guarantee results. We can give it our best effort, but cannot completely control the outcome. Only God can do that.(5)Hmm. The Parable of the Sower. In the original version, I suspect we would identify Jesus as the farmer, the seed as the gospel, and the field as the world. But the truth is that we too are involved in spreading the seed, whether it be by preaching, teaching, singing, inviting, or day-to-day LIVING.
I would love to tell you DO NOT BE DISCOURAGED, but I know that is easier said than done. I wish I would not get discouraged, but I do. Membership declines; finances tight; a neighborhood that has changed; there are hopeful signs here and there, but, one way or the other, onward and upward, no matter what. You work hard, but where are the results? The message of the parable to all of us who, on behalf of Jesus, are sowers of seed is do not get discouraged over RESULTS. Those are out of your hand.
You may encounter those outside the church who could care less about this enterprise and will never be convinced that we are worth bothering with. The well-trodden path. Keep sowing the seed. There are those who respond quickly, join with us in our work and worship, but who just as quickly, and for no apparent reason, stop coming. Stony ground. Keep sowing the seed. There are those who are active for a time, but slowly participate less and less (and especially if something occurred that was in the least bit upsetting); church used to be a priority but now there are so many other things to do. Thorny ground. Keep sowing the seed. And then there are those who are the pillars of the church - here every time the doors are open, always willing to take on any task, always anxious to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Somebody sowed that seed. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. And keep sowing the seed. You never know. You just never know.
Never underestimate the power of a seed. In the 1950's, African-Americans began demanding their civil rights, and though the road was long and sometimes very bloody, the seed they sowed finally blossomed. Keep sowing the seed. This past week, 250,000 marchers gathered in Scotland - the largest gathering ever in that nation - calling attention to the problems of poverty, AIDS, and global warming, problems that CAN be solved if the wealthy nations of the west decide to do it. The world leaders gathered for the summit there heard the call, and, for the most part, responded (even if not to the level they could have - unfortunately, the worst response came from the US). Keep sowing the seed. Billy Graham last week concluded what is probably his last evangelistic crusade in a remarkable 60-year ministry. How many seeds has he sown? What kind of harvest has it been? Keep sowing the seed.
Never underestimate the power of a seed. In 1949 there were approximately 700-thousand evangelical Christians in China, the result of almost 100 years of missionary work. Not a great number when you consider a total population that was, at the time, rapidly approaching 1 billion people, but not insignificant either. But 1949 was a watershed year there - Mao Tse Tung and the Communist party came to power and China closed its doors to the outside world. Christian missions were shut down. The end of Christianity in China, right? Hardly. In the years since, despite the lack of mission efforts from outside, the growth has been phenomenal. Today the statistics vary according to the reporting entity. However, official government statistics put the number at 25-30 million (a figure that some say is not nearly large enough, but still...), an incredible increase since 1949, making Christianity the second largest religious affiliation in China next to Buddhism.(6) How do you explain it? Fertility Facts! The seed was sown.
It would have been easy to predict in 1949 that this was the end of the church in China. And some did. But they did not know. Nor do any of us ever. No preacher or teacher ever does. The word is simply this: keep sowing the seed. We can leave the rest to God, and the harvest can be beyond belief. Those are the Fertility Facts. And that is GOOD news indeed.
1. Quoted in A. M. Hunter, The Parables Then and Now, (Philadelphia : Westminster Press, 1971), p. 10
2. Barry J. Robinson, "Get a Grip," http://www.spirit-net.ca/sermons/a-or15-keeping.php
3. Soil information from William Barclay, And Jesus Said: A Handbook on the Parables of Jesus, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), pp. 18-19
4. The New Interpreter's Bible, CD-ROM (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997)
5. Janet Mathistad, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #3026, 7/7/99